In a time of rampant media explosion, it’s good to know there’s a school that is 100% dedicated to “responsible storytelling.” That school is the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Founded 37 years ago by a high school teacher, the Institute’s commitment to teaching hungry students how to become truthful, thorough, and creative documentarians has never wavered.
Concentrating on one of three disciplines – writing, radio, or photography – students attend the Institute for 15 weeks, researching and locating compelling stories, working hard to gain access, and then figuring out how best to tell the story in images, words, and sound. Throughout, students are encouraged to “… value and pursue truth, using journalistic skills and ethics to produce powerful, fair-minded, technically astute documentary work,” according to Donna Galluzzo, Salt’s Executive Director.
“Our students, who range in age and background from college students to working professionals, benefit from Salt’s collaborative, experiential environment and small class sizes. Approximately 30 students come to Salt each semester – the average class size is 10 to 12 students, led by instructors who are working professionals in their fields,” continues Galluzzo.
The semester-long course of study requires the student to focus in one area, but the curriculum also requires collaboration with a student from another discipline, thereby emphasizing the ethical and collaborative aspects of documentary work. Altogether, the process results in a vital stream of documentary production on display for the community and the world, as well as an enormous repository of Maine history and culture, which is preserved in the Mildred H. McEvoy Archive, containing hundreds of thousands of negatives, countless hours of interviews, and the final products of students’ hard work over the last 35 years.
State-of-the-art photography and audio recording studios are complemented by an intimate 50-seat theater and a large gallery at the school’s facility in the heart of Portland’s Arts District. Radio and writing students are provided state-of-the-art recording equipment for the semester, and work on 20-inch iMacs using Pro Tools, the industry standard in audio editing. Photography students are each assigned their own 24-inch iMac computer for the semester, and become familiar with Adobe CS5 Photoshop and Lightroom 3.
Students (fondly known as “Salties”) spend time in class, but also log many hours in the field, out and about in Maine, collecting the interviews, photographs, recordings and other observations that will inform their documentary productions. Then a good portion of their time must be spent putting it all together. The semester is an intense immersion in the documentary process.
In the end, Salt graduates leave with a certificate in Documentary Studies and transferable college credits: 16 for undergraduates and nine for graduate students.
In the words of Documentary Perspectives instructor Jen Smith-Mayo, Salt Institute teaches students to “… tell the best and most honest story (they’re) capable of.” The training has proven successful, as evidenced by the school’s News page, showing story after story of alumni accomplishments and recognitions.
The school is proud of its mission, encouraging the production of more substantive, ethical, and compelling documentary work for generations to come.